THIRTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD Vikramaditya Motwane’s directorial debut Udaan, which opened to uniformly positive reviews in mid-2010, was chosen for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, the first Indian entry in seven years to be selected for any competitive category at Cannes. It won the Star Screen Awards’ Best Picture and Best Director trophies earlier this year. Udaan is a coming-of-age film about a teenager who aspires to be a writer, but finds his ambition in conflict with the wishes of his domineering father. There’s a puzzling incongruity throughout the movie about the era in which it is set. It begins with four boys sneaking out of their elite boarding school in Shimla to watch a soft-porn film in a theatre in town. This feels like a scene from the 1990s or earlier. Caught in the auditorium, the four students, including the protagonist Rohan, are expelled. Rohan returns to Jamshedpur, dragging an old metal trunk of the kind the affluent stopped using decades ago. The narrative keeps evoking a time frame in the past: Rohan’s father Bhairav drives a Contessa (which was discontinued in 2002); factories and offices are bereft of computers; home interiors and furniture look dated; Rohan’s Jamshedpur friends meet at a pool parlour; landlines are used frequently; and Bhairav pressures the teenager to study engineering. It is true that none of these markers is definitive: there must still be factories lacking electronic devices, people driving Contessas, and even students jumping walls to catch late-night adult films in auditoriums. The accretion of such elements, however, creates the impression of a film set vaguely in the past, but not located rigorously enough to become revelatory of a specific milieu. Contrarily, there are hints of a more contemporary period: a subtitle refers to ‘Jharkhand’; Calcutta is pronounced ‘Kolkata’; relatively new mobile phone and car models appear in several frames.
All this might not have mattered much had Udaan been in any way cinematically engaging. Unfortunately, it is resolutely utilitarian in its framing, lighting and pace, and is hampered by the inconsistent development of Bhairav’s character. This man is brutish and self-centred enough to leave Rohan stranded in Shimla for eight years without seeing him even once. Yet, in a crucial scene, he breaks up an important business meeting to pick up his younger son who’s been ordered to leave school on flimsy grounds. Surely, a man of this nature would tell the teacher on the phone, “I’m busy right now, my son can sit on a bench or wait at the gate for an hour or two.” But that would deprive Udaan of its peripeteia.
A little over 50 years ago, another coming-of-age film by a 34-year-old debutant director was screened at Cannes, and won the Best Human Document award. Satyajit Ray faced greater budgetary constraints than did the creators of Udaan, but he took great care to set Pather Panchali in the 1920s. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the siblings Durga and Apu walk through a field of tall kans grass to a rail track as a train thunders past. The awe with which they respond to the sight of power lines and the railway would not have rung true had the film been set in the 1950s, although there were probably children in rural Bengal at that time who had never seen power lines or train tracks.